Suzy Garrett, Freshwater Healthcare - The rationale for change

Good communications are vital if NHS organisations are to win support from stakeholders.

Thursday, 6 May 2010 marked a new era for the health service. NHS organisations across the country are digesting the general and local election results and getting ready to deliver new government policies and live up to party campaign promises. Communicating the decisions of strategic and operational reviews is likely to present a raft of reputational challenges.

Along with the new political environment comes the most difficult financial climate faced by the health service in years - £15-20bn has to be saved by 2014. For a sector that has grown accustomed to receiving annual funding increases to tackle an ageing population, rising costs for new medicines and technology, and increasing public demands, even a health budget that keeps up with inflation will sting.

Meanwhile, ambitions for a 'patient-centred' service that increases choice, improves quality of care and delivers personalised services remains a priority, as does the clinician-led quality, innovation and productivity agenda. What is certain is that to make good progress in these areas, there will be a growing need for professional communications to engage with and consult the public and clinical staff.

There is no doubt that the NHS will have to make tough decisions if it is to succeed and become more efficient. The concern is that communication will be one of the first places targeted for savings and the effect on shortand long-term reputational goals not considered. The importance of communication must not be underestimated because it has a vital role to play in this period of complete transformation.

The rationale for change - particularly unpopular change - must be clearly communicated and understood by stakeholders, or NHS organisations (some of which have already learned from bitter experience) could provoke emotive and hostile reactions - and fuel opposing campaigns.

Good communication will be imperative. Handle change badly and the reputation of the organisation will be damaged overnight, creating an uphill struggle for recovery and jeopardising stakeholder relationships. Handle change well and NHS organisations will be able to gain understanding, support and commitment from these audiences, all crucial to making improvements and building a better service.

Much effort will, therefore, have to be expended on nurturing existing stakeholder relationships and creating new ones to communicate change and ensure there is strong, meaningful and ongoing two-way dialogue. Regular contact with stakeholders such as patients, the public, local MPs and the media will enable NHS organisations to explain the corporate vision, position and developments, and to understand some of the difficult decisions that will have to be made.

NHS communications professionals will need to protect their resource and budgets by clearly demonstrating the value and legacy of their existence and efforts. Communication strategies must be reviewed and flexible enough to adapt to the changing environment, ensuring that activity focuses on helping to achieve corporate goals. And new methods of communication such as online consultation and marketing will have to be considered to ensure efficiency and audience effectiveness.

By investing in communication, NHS organisations will be better able to tackle the challenges ahead, taking stakeholders with them rather than ostracising them by making shock announcements. They will also be better able to understand local stakeholders, learning how to serve them best and creating that patient-centred service they have striven so hard to achieve.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Who is the most effective third-party advocate you have worked with?

We always find health professionals - doctors, nurses and other carers - along with patients to be the most credible and influential advocates. We were recently involved in communicating controversial plans about the reorganisation of 11 hospitals that provide children's heart surgery. With emotions riding high and with plans under discussion for many years, it was the views of a young patient and his father that reminded specialist health professionals of the need for change, the importance of patients and why the service must work as one and not as individual centres.

- Suzy Garrett is co-director of Freshwater Healthcare.

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